Journalism and Communication Rights In Canada: An Interview With Jeremy Shtern

Marc Raboy and Jeremy Shtern’s collection Media Divides: Communication Rights and the Right to Communicate in Canada is a series of essays by Canadian media and communications scholars on the past, present and future of Canadian communication rights.

Marc Raboy and Jeremy Shtern’s collection Media Divides: Communication Rights and the Right to Communicate in Canada is a series of essays by Canadian media and communications scholars on the past, present and future of Canadian communication rights. Expanding the notion of ‘the right to communicate’ beyond a conversation about freedom of expression, the authors in this book tackle topics as various as copyright, privacy, Internet infrastructure and access, and the political economy of media.  The book’s overarching goal is both to assess and propose remediation for some of the serious problems plaguing the Canadian communications landscape.  Because good journalism is fundamental to Canadian communication rights, Researching Journalism editor Lisa Lynch interviewed Jeremy Shtern about the process of editing Media Divides and what the book suggests about the role of journalists in ensuring communication rights for Canadians.

LL: Let’s start by talking about how this book came about, since this wasn’t really intended as a book project.

JS: It’s  kind of an interesting story as books go: in most cases a book is a desirable end result for an academic project, but in our case we were actually disappointed that it was just a book.  It came out of a very specific grant project which is called “Relationships In Transition” grant, which was jointly administered by SSHRC and the Law Commission of Canada. Any study the Law Commission is involved in has status in Parliament, so the Minister of Justice has to formally respond to the research that is been presented to him. So the original conditions of the grant were to write a report to give to the Law Commission, which meant we get to do academic research that the Minister of Justice would have to respond to. Getting something on the agenda and instigating a discussion with people in high places about this issue was really appealing to us.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after we got things off the ground the Conservative government (which was then a minority government) launched a program of…what would be the most neutral way to say this …rationalising certain knowledge production and discussion facilitation. And the Law Commission was shut down. We had already been given the grant, which was administered by SSHRC, but now we no longer had a very specific venue; still, we decided we wanted to keep going on the project and we thought about what kind of alternative contribution we could make.  So in that sense we sort of fell backwards into a book. We thought it was important that it was a distinctly Canadian book, in part because the mandate of the original project was to study these issues in Canada for the Law Commission of Canada, so we went to UBC Press.

LL: That is an interesting, if sad story. So, why communication rights?

JS: Communication rights was explicitly put on the agenda by the Law Commission Communication rights had been part of policy discussions at the UN since the first World Summit on the Information Society since 2001. So the Law Commission was being in reaching out and trying to pull these policy discussions from the global level to the Canadian context.  Of course, as we talked about this in the book, this is in part because communication rights in fact have much of their intellectual and political history from Canada, from work that was done at the now defunct Department of Communication of the Canadian government during the early 1970s. So in that sense it was a logical issue for the Canadian Government to explore, because here is an idea that the Canada has more or less contributed to the genesis of, that vanished from the Canadian agenda and re-emerged at the international level. So maybe it’s worth considering what the implications of this international debate are for Canada, how much of this reflects the kind of thought that we had around communication law and policy in Canada historically.

You and Marc Raboy discuss something called “the social cycle of communication,” arguing that when we think about communication rights we often think of it in an incredibly reductive way —  as the right for everyone to speak.  One the things that the book makes a point of is that communication rights is the right to do a number of different things… 

It wasn’t an original idea; the social cycle comes from the activist campaign for communication rights.  But we found it very useful. We stayed away from positioning what we were doing as free speech scholarship because so much of that ends up being grouped around discussion of the First Amendment. We didn’t even want to position our argument relative to First Amendment notions of free speech; I think we wanted to tap into what was going on at the global level, where the First Amendment is massive outlier to the way the rest of the world understands free speech. I think you have to look at the structure of the Canadian media system as a very large step away from First Amendment notions of free speech, given that the rights of groups to be protected from hate speech and intimidation in the public sphere is greater than the right of individuals to express.

Talking about a ‘social cycle,’ we felt, would help explain how Canada has approached ideas about free speech in a manner legible to people who are more grounded in the First Amendment tradition. One of that things that is really provocative about the idea of the social cycle is that it includes rights to not communicate, to not be communicated about, to not be communicated to, which are, I think, important in particular in regards to the direction that some of the technological platforms are going.

LL: How do you think communication rights issues have been represented within Canadian society? Is there a disconnect between the interests of civic groups in communication rights and the way that the media represents it as communication rights issues?

JS: I think so. Every day you can look in the newspaper, and there is at least one story that you could connect to this definition of communication rights. But you don’t see that framing. Our big conceptual contribution is to connect, for example, problems of cyber bullying with questions of the CBC’s mandate, because the media does not always necessarily make those connections. I think there’s a public disconnect too. For instance, one of the things we talk about in the book is that we have all these rights, all these communication rights in terms of Canada’s broadcasting policy that don’t necessarily exist in terms of Canada’s IT or internet governance policies. So we have to think now about how these rights transcend platforms, and how they transcend eras..

LL: Let’s talk about this, because this is something that comes up again and again in your book – the gap between the aspirational goals of the Broadcasting Act, and the practical realities of the Canadian media ecosystem. So you’ve got on the one hand this Broadcasting Act with specific provisions connected to communication rights. but because the communication landscape is changing, and because the CRTC has been so reluctant to step into the changing communication landscape the rights are becoming attenuated.

JS: One of the things we tried to point to, and I think maybe Laura Murray does this most effectively, is that citizens haven’t necessarily made all these connection: even when there are clear examples of violations of privacy, etc, we just don’t claim our rights as users. The literacy level amongst citizens and internet users in particular is pretty low.  Sometimes when we engage with stuff that offers us undeniably new and transformative ways of communicating, we have to take a step back and make the connections with some of the discussions we’ve had about other forms of technology.

LL: One important place that this stepping back is necessary is the idea of internet access. In her chapter, Leslie Shade argues that for a lot of people access is a consumer notion: the idea that everyone gets to have the broadband that they want. But this isn’t what the right to access means.

JS: Yes, it is much less about this consumer ideology of only being able to purchase or procure, and more a citizenship based notion of access which says that you’re able to plug yourself in. When you think of access as a right, it is much more about being able to contribute to society and being able to make use of the Internet rather than just having log in.

LL: In a way, that is the larger argument of the book:that media access isn’t just about having a signal broadcast into your home, it’s about being able to have the right to shape and participate in the media.

JS: And being able to find a signal that speaks to you and your place in society.

LL: And what’s the biggest threat to that right now?

JS: Honestly, I’ve got to say the biggest threat is actually the uncertainty. I think the most threatening current trend is just effectively paralysis, and I mean that paralysis from public officials and paralysis from the communication industry as well, because there’s a great fear to make a significant investment in a wrong step. And we see this repeatedly with regulatory decisions been made in Canada right now: you know. ‘we don’t want to lock in something transitory and thereby preclude a better future that’s yet to come.’ But I think the problem is that we can only exist in this state for so long: we see that with the CBC in particular, which has become much more of a commercial service.  And eventually maybe the right people will discussion at some point about what public service communication means in Canada, but maybe the CBC will be irrelevant by that time. So by the time we get around figuring out what the long term future of public broadcasting and public communication specially might be, is possible a whole generation will have been tuned out CBC, and that’s an alarming prospect.

LL: So if the media isn’t really thinking about communication rights issues as a framework for these discussions, what might convince them to do so?

JS: My pitch would be that communication rights are a way of helping journalists understand the value that they add to both the public sphere and Canadian media. I think everybody recognises that gatekeeping is a necessary element of any legitimate media system and that journalists play a very necessary role, and I think in that sense the idea of communication rights can help professional journalists embrace what they do contribute in their role as information gatekeepers to the Canadian media.  It’s important to realize that bloggers aren’t mandated to help with communication rights. I would argue that because of the broadacasting act, broadcast journalists do have that mandate.  For the print press, they’re not mandated by policy, but they are mandated by sort of the ethical environment in which professional journalists work. And so I think in some senses I’d love for journalists to think about… to think of themselves as officers of communication rights in thinking about which assignments they take on.

LL: You mean, if they are able to choose their assignments….

JS: I understand that  most journalists now don’t choose the stories they tell, and I also understand the immense pressure they’re under in terms of the the precarity of their jobs.  Actually,  I would also encourage journalists to think about their work conditions in terms of communication rights.  They have workplace rights in their job, but on top of that, the ambitions of the citizenry depends on, to certain degree, on the sorts of working conditions they can negotiate. In that sense communication rights requires a better career for journalists than the one most journalists have right now. And I think that is one of the systemic failures of the Canadian media at present is the failure to put them in the position to do the things that other information brokers cannot.


Media Divides: Communication Rights and the Right to Communicate in Canada (Marc Raboy, Jeremy Shtern, William J. McIver, Laura J. Murray, Sean O Siochru and Leslie Regan Shade)was published in 2010 by UBC Press.